Probably the most important fashion designer of the twentieth century, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971) created the basic look of the modern woman. That look, like one of Chanel's classic suits, has remained original and vibrant from the 1920s, when it first appeared on French fashion runways, into the twenty-first century. Chanel's success as a timeless designer comes from her very practical approach to women's fashions. Real elegance, according to Chanel, came from feeling comfortable and free in one's clothes. The point of fashion, she insisted, was to allow the real woman to show through, not to cover her up with frills and fluff.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in poverty to unmarried parents in the small French town of Saumur. Her father was never a part of her life, and her mother died when Gabrielle was twelve, leaving her to spend the rest of her youth in an orphanage. The nuns there taught the young girl only one skill: sewing. Gabrielle was energetic, spirited, and determined to leave the orphanage and her deprived childhood behind her. As a young woman she earned the nickname "Coco" from the word cocotte, a French word for a woman with loose morals.
Chanel used her sewing skills and a fine eye for design to create hats that were simple and stylish, unlike the elaborate, plumed (ornamental) hats French women were wearing. Soon she opened a hat shop in Paris, France, and began to design clothes as well. In 1909 she created the House of Chanel, her own fashion house. Chanel's designs came from watching people relax at the seaside and in the country. Deciding that women needed comfort and freedom of movement just as much as men did, she eliminated the confining corset, a restrictive under-garment, and invented the concept of "sports clothes," clothes that could be worn at a variety of informal occasions. She used fabrics formerly considered low-class and too practical to be fashionable, like jersey knits and wools to create beautiful, expensive dresses and suits.
Some of Chanel's most enduring contributions to women's fashions were the simple knit suit and the "little black dress," a simple black cocktail dress that is still often considered a basic of any woman's wardrobe. In 1926 she shocked some and thrilled others by adding trousers for women to her clothing line. During the mid-1920s she also joined with famed perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the scent that would become her signature, Chanel No. 5.
The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s dealt a blow to the House of Chanel, and during the occupation of France by the Germans during World War II (1939–45), Chanel closed her design business. She reopened in 1954, reintroducing many of her classic designs, such as a navy blue suit in wool jersey. Her European customers did not appreciate Chanel's return to simplicity after the war, when other designers were using frills and other ornaments to emphasize femininity. However, American women continued to love the practical and stylish new fashions. Chanel suits and copies of Chanel suits were very popular with American women, including influential first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929–1994), during the early 1960s, causing many Europeans to rethink their criticisms.
Coco Chanel continued to work and design until her death at age eighty-eight. The House of Chanel continues to operate in the twenty-first century, carrying on its founder's tradition of breezy elegance and practical style.